Pearl Dykstra, Professor of Empirical Sociology at Erasmus University, is to keep the European Commission informed about current scientific knowledge. She officially starts this week. “It would be fantastic to be able to make a real difference.”
“It’s an understatement to say I’m looking forward to it”, says Dykstra in answer to the question as to whether she is looking forward to starting. Her enthusiasm about her position within the European Commission’s new advisory body is obvious. The High Level Group of Scientific Advisors comprises seven top scientists, including Dykstra, who will work directly for Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, in the area of science for policy. Dykstra will spend 40 days a year bringing the European Commission up to date on current scientific knowledge. The first meeting is this week. “My duty is very much about providing sociological perspectives.”
How did you become a member of the High Level Group?
“Erasmus University nominated me. At a certain point I was invited for a discussion and there I was, sitting opposite Sir David King – 29 honorary doctorates, a Nobel Prize, former head of something in Oxford, former head of something in Cambridge – talking about myself. I mainly gave examples of my own work, research that was either inspired by policy or was about the implications for policy.”
And now you’ll be giving policy advice to the European Commission.
“Well, not policy advice as such; it’s more about current scientific knowledge. There is a list of areas in which the Commission is involved. The European Commissioners have already identified certain topics and made a provisional selection.”
What kind of topics are on the list?
“I’m not allowed to provide that information at the present time. And I won’t do so either, because certain things may not go ahead. The topics will be made public as soon as they have been officially announced.”
Can you give an example without revealing too much?
“Carlos Moedas himself gave Ebola as an example, so it’s quite safe for me to mention that. What does science have to say about the fight against Ebola? And what can we do as Europe on the basis of that knowledge?”
What will be your role within the High Level Group?
“My task is primarily to provide insights based on social science. Europe is of course very concerned about innovation and economic growth. Take robots, for example. Will these benefit people, or only the owners and developers? And why are there reservations in this regard? I would like to offer sociological perspectives regarding technological developments.”
How will you actually issue your advice and recommendations as a group?
“That remains to be seen. We are currently working on our rules of procedure. How should we select our topics? How should we make this transparent? The Commission has some ideas, but we do too, of course. In what ways will our independence be guaranteed? What will be the time schedule for giving advice? What does an advice looks like? How will we relate to the universities’ umbrella bodies and to the Joint Research Centre? How will we involve our secretariat in our work?”
It seems as if you have ended up in a huge bureaucracy.
“I think that that’s exactly what Commission Chair Jean-Claude Juncker experienced; that he couldn’t find us quickly. I also think that the objective is to make it possible to bring the Commission up to date about current scientific knowledge rapidly. This is what makes the task ahead so exciting. No fact-free politics but, rather, what is the evidence? What is the causality? What do we know? How well-founded is a given idea or assumption?”
Do you think that the European Commission will listen?
“Yes, I think so. Juncker and Moedas certainly; I don’t know the other members of the Commission yet. But they wouldn’t set this up to then simply set it aside. We need to be extremely transparent about our choice of topics. I assume that this will also apply to our advice. European Commission, why did you follow this advice as opposed to that advice?”
How close to the centre will you be?
“We will have direct contact with the Commission. And that’s what makes this so interesting. All these lobby groups want to be very close to the Commission. You can’t imagine the kinds of emails I receive and what I’m asked for now.”
Can you give an example?
“No, I can’t do that. It is extremely fascinating to see. You know that Europe is full of lobby groups, but it is interesting to suddenly be at the centre of it all.”
Is the High Level Group also a counterweight to all that lobbying?
“I wouldn’t dare to say, but it could well be that the consideration played a part in the decision to form the group. It is up to us as scientists, and as the High Level Group, to demonstrate science and not to allow ourselves to be tempted to make statements that are not supported by empirical evidence. It is mainly a form in which top policymakers can communicate with top academics. That is also good for science.”
Why is it good for science?
“First of all it is recognition. It underlines the importance of science; of what science can mean. And of course it is also in keeping with the idea of valorisation – what a revolting word that is. It is often regarded very one-sided, as ‘kennis, kunde, kassa’ (the idea that science can be used for financial gains). But valorisation is also educational valorisation, or the translation of science into policy. As scholars we may present building blocks for policy. We can therefore also account for why government money should go to our sector.”
Are you actually a committed European?
“I have a lot of admiration for Juncker; he is really trying to make something of Europe. Europe has also taken us a long way: anti-discrimination provisions, free trade. Look at the Erasmus grants for students or the funding for research that Dutch scientists receive from Europe. I am certainly a supporter of Europe.”
Three years ago, you received an ERC Advanced Investigator Grant for your research into family relationships between generations. You are Vice-Chairman of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), and now you also have to advise the European Commission. Do you still have time for your own research?
Dykstra bursts out laughing. “It’s terrible. That project is now half-way and I really need to focus on time management. What I keep saying to my PhD students and post-docs is that I will only do the things that only I can do. I’ll try to delegate the rest. I’m working day and night, but I really enjoy it.”
“I get a lot of energy from conducting research. And I’ll keep doing that because I want to challenge myself intellectually. I don’t want to be a research manager that presents the work of his or her PhDs at conferences. There should always be something of mine in the research.”
In an article in EM three years ago regarding this European study grant, is to be read that you are often asked for higher board positions, but reject these because you consider scientific research to be more important.
“No, no, no. The High Level Group is of course something different. President of the Executive Board, dean, that’s something I won’t do.”
So no rectorship either?
“No, I’d prefer to do this. I get energy from interaction with politicians and policymakers. It would be fantastic if we were able to make a real difference.”